Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Before I came out as a gay man and returned to graduate school to pursue film studies, I found my identity in the roles that I played: son, grandson, brother, good student, Christian, religious, church leader, Evangelist, and heterosexual. It wasn't difficult. I'd been cast in my role by virtue of genes and geography. Each of us to one degree or another, deal with this mantle thrust upon us by birth. While many embrace it; others question it, while yet a few cast it off and flee naked into the day or the night to find another cloak that fits to who they are.
In many ways the question still remains, from what do I achieve or draw my identity? Who am I? I'm still a son and brother, but unlike my brothers, I never became a husband nor a father. What does it mean to be a creative or an artist? Are you an artist, if you've never had a gallery show? Are you a novelist, if you've never had a book published? Are you an actor if you're not on stage in a play?
Frequently, I am asked, "What do you do?" What do I say? Or should I say anything?
It seems like I'm drawn into a game which I'm not going to win. The question seems so American, rude and direct at the same time.
Often, I respond by saying, "I'm a photographer." But what does that mean? I could take pictures of flower pots, or door knobs, or weddings, or babies, or cars, or whatever. I've had people respond back, "Oh. My seven year old nephew is a photographer. You should see his pictures."
Once, I explain that I make portraits. I'm then asked,
"Are you a professional photographer or is it just a hobby?"
This is where the answer gets tricky. Professional or hobbyist. What people want to know is whether you earn money from your photography and if you can live off it. You are then being judged, not on the creative work itself, but rather on the money derived.
If I say, (with some bemusement), the results are professional, then I see question marks reflected back in their uncomprehending eyes. From their point of view, someone who spends his time on something without earning much back is either crazy or a hobbyist. Everyone is allowed their hobbies.
So I guess I'm not a hobbyist, I'm just crazy. What else could I be, if not crazy? I spend hours and hours, days and days, months and months, years and years, making photographs without having achieved a gallery show or a major magazine publication. The money that I've spent is incalculable at this point in time, what with the expense of equipment, film, processing and prints.
Now I deflect the question. I usually say that I make photographs and write, but that I earn income from doing all sorts of other things: teacher, child care provider; waiter; bartender; and, production assistant. The list goes on and on. For the last three years, I have lived with a family in Brooklyn and helped to care for and raise their son, who will soon be six years. It is not an experience I sought, but one that by happenstance came to me, and I don't regret it. I've formed a relationship that will be with me for a life time.
Last week, I sat in Union Square, New York City, dressed in black pants, long sleep white pullover, white mask and black goggles joined by thirty other men and women in a performance for a Brooklyn artist. For this I earned the princely sum of twenty dollars. "Hey. It pays for subway fares."
To say that I'm a photographer places me in one box. I'm not "just" a photographer. I'm a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend, a gay man, who makes photographs, who writes, who travels, who engages with interesting people and learns other points of view. I'm a creative who lives, or attempts to live, creatively.
Monday, August 3, 2009
Some years back I sat parked inside my youngest brother's car outside his suburban house, while his fifteen year old daughter and nine year old son fought over the music. "It's not even pretty," my nephew declared in reference to his older sister's choice. He spoke with such surprising disdain for a boy so young, yet already he demonstrated that age was no barrier to convictions.
Some time before this dispute, I had lent him my catalogue of cds. The artists ranged from Moby to Minogue to Mozart. I was quite curious as to his preference. What would he favor?
What's great about kids is that they do not know the difference between old and new, ancient and contemporary. It's all the same and so they gravitate to whatever they like rather than what the surrounding culture steers them toward.
He ended up selecting Mylene Farmer, a French pop singer. For weeks following, he sat in the back of the car, buckled in by his seat belt, (barely tall enough to look out the window), with his earplugs tethered to his portable cd player and listen to Madame Farmer over and over again. Why? What drew him to this sound? Obviously, there was no way he could understand the lyrics. They were in French for God's sake! But, nevertheless, he responded to something that touched him on a deeper emotional level that although he was too young to articulate, he nevertheless felt.
I believe that it is this emotional and intellectual connection that separates art from commerce. Rather than persuade you to do something as Commerce would do (Go there, buy this), great art whispers rather than shouts affecting the hearer/seer on a deeper level. Art gets under the skin in the way that commerce can never do, touching the mind and the heart. I think that this is why commerce favors the beautiful because it is so often only about the surface.
Why do we return again and again to certain music, painting, photography, theater, architecture, poetry and novels? Great art is an act of communication between the Maker and the Recipient. It has the capacity to arouse a feeling that was heretofore absent.
Some people look to Art for answers that other people seek in religion. Art like religion is the expression of the ineffable. We try to explain but we can not, so we find another means of communication.
Like my young nephew, I'm attracted to beauty. Beauty is like a shiny object on the sidewalk that immediately catches your eye, but just as quickly loses your attention as you walk on down the street. I glance through fashion magazines all the time, feasting on the beautiful men and women, yet it is an empty calorie meal. I rarely linger on any image, quickly turning the page and moving on to the next. The beauty on display is all on the surface and reveals nothing more. It appears to have been conceived by an Art Director and a Stylist, rather than springing from an artist.
Nevertheless, recently, upon three separate occasions over the course of a few weeks, I went back to see the retrospective of Fashion Photography by Richard Avedon on show at the Museum of the International Center of Photography in New York City. Three times! Something more must be contained in Avedon's photographs to warrant repeated viewings.
Avedon was embraced and worshiped by the fashion world. But Avedon wasn't merely a fashion photographer, he was at heart, a portraitist. His fashion images from the 40s through the 70s lean closer to portraiture than le Mode, in spite of the couture clothes by Dior and Givenchy.
Avedon believed his series of photographs of regular people that he shot in the American West his more important work. But to me he seems to have no real connection to these subjects nor they to him.
While the photographs displayed at the ICP Museum reveal he had a deep bond to the subjects, aka models, who inhabited his frames. It feels like he knew them and that they were his friends, his family--a very beautiful, lively, interesting family, but nevertheless a family. One can imagine that he had Dorian Leigh, Sunny Hartnett, Suzy Parker, Robin Tattersall, Dovima, Lauren Hutton, Jean Shrimpton, Veruschka, Twiggy, Penelope Tree, et al, all over to dinner where they laughed and talked late into the night.
While the fashion images taken in Paris in the 40s and 50s were his work, the photographs capture the wonderful times he shared with a select group of beautiful friends living in beautiful places. "Wish you were here!"
And I do wish I was there! I wish to much to be transported back in time. I want to take Suzy Parker to dinner; I want to go roller skating with Robin Tattersall on the Place de Concorde in Paris. These are great cinematic images in the true sense of the cinema that recall the best of post war Hollywood Directors. The photographs tell a stories of love, longing, loss and great happiness.
This is why I went back to see the Avedon show again and again, because in the process of viewing the images, Avedon became more real. Not only do the models age, but the photographer and artist, as well. In their youth they see their reflection in the faces of their youthful friends and colleagues, but as they age they become less the participant and more the observer.